Sunday, November 16, 2014

Veterans Of A Battle For Humane Mental Health Treatment

2009 NPR report
During World War II hundreds of conscientious objectors, in lieu of serving in the armed forces, were assigned to work in settings like overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed US mental hospitals.

Conditions in most of these institutions were horrific. And by 1940, there were some one million patients locked up in prison-like places like the Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, with an inmate population that peaked at 16,000. Like most such institutions, it has since been drastically downsized, but remains the largest psychiatric hospital in the world.

During the forties and fifties, a record number of mentally ill patients were consigned to such hellish places. Many of them were left there for life, and their numbers were growing exponentially.

For most of the Quakers, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and other pacifists who did their alternative Civilian Public Service assignments in such settings, it was a new and unforgettable experience.

Local CPS'er Harold Lehman recalls his first impressions upon arriving for his assigned work at the Greystone Park Mental Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, during the war. The institution, surrounded by a stone wall a mile in circumference, most resembled a prison, one which at that time incarcerated some 5000 patients.

Harold checked in a day earlier than he was to report for work, but the head of the medical surgical unit ordered him to report for his first 12-hour, six-day-a-week shift immediately due to their severe staff shortage, and without providing any orientation whatever.

According to a 2009 NPR report, the presence of caring attendants like Lehman made a noticeable difference not only in the lives of abused and neglected patients but also for the men who served them. So much so that after the war a disproportionate number of people from my denomination went into mental health professions, and there are now six Mennonite-affiliated treatment centers in the country, as follows:

Kingview Mental Health System (1948) Reedley, California
Brook Lane Psychiatric Center (1949) Hagerstown, Maryland
Meadowlark Homestead Inc. (1951) Newton, Kansas
Philhaven (1952) Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania
Prairie View (1954) Newton, Kansas
Oaklawn (1962) Goshen, Indiana

In addition there are several Mennonite-related outpatient mental health counseling centers, including the Family Life Resource Center, where I work. Nationally, we have reached the consensus that most mentally ill people can best be treated in their communities rather than being locked away for years  on end.

As someone with a strong interest in prison reform, I can't help but wonder whether we may someday look back at today's trend toward over-incarceration of offenders as a similar travesty.

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